He caught my attention when he introduced himself as "main yahain ka sabse chota sipahi hu" and in my short stay I saw that this wasn't just an empty statement but he lived up to it.
When kids his age were running around playing 'Baraf aur Pani', their version of lock and key, he would be walking with me for 3-4km at a stretch in the scorching heat to attend the Mahan Sangarsh Samiti (MSS) meetings. He would take care of me throughout the walk; make me drink water when I was too occupied with work. He would keep insisting to hold my bottle and my camera bag so that I can walk comfortably and would try to pass his craving to pluck raw mangoes saying that he is doing it for me.
He kept a track about what time is the meeting, where is it and which toli next. He was the first to reach our office at 6am to accompany us to the meeting. He used to bully other young kids who would attend the MSS meeting with his, "Abey tu kyoon aaya, peecha kyoon kar raha hai?" and then would see me watch him and say, "Arrey mein toh mazak kar raha tha!". He considered them as competition to his 'Chota Sipahi' tag. He would sit right in the centre with the active members during all the meetings, learn all the new slogans and would lead the slogans with a loud and clear voice.
The young soldier's enthusiasm and commitment compelled me to enquire about the reason that makes him so active in MSS. He told me that the school is shut for summer vacation and anyway they don't teach anything, the kids go there just to play. Since he has free time in his hand, he does what he can to stop the company's ugly plan and to save his forest, his home.
I then asked him but how does the company affect him since he doesn't benefit financially from the forest like the adults of the village do? To this he said that he goes there to play, to pluck and eat the Mahua flower, Tendu fruit, Char, Chakaud, etc. Then the kids collect wood and make toys like cutting the worn out chappals in circle and using them as wheels, attaching them at the end of the branch and running around with their cool, eco- friendly cars. Then they also tie two ends of a rope to the branch of a tree and form a loop, which they use as swings.
Later I got to know another reason behind his involvement in MSS from the villagers. He had lost both his parents, he lived with his elder brother who worked in the company. This made me sad at first but when I saw him happy and content with his life, I realised that the only thing I should feel for him is admiration and not sympathy. This reason of his has become an added motivation for me to save Mahan, the forest which provides for him and protects him, who is his friend and his parent. This is Avdesh Kumar Panika, the mango plucking, slogan shouting Chota Sipahi who showed me this fight must go on and mustn't lose the momentum.
"Abhi toh yeh angdayi hai, Aage aur ladayi hai (This is just a warm-up for the struggle that lies ahead)."
Aafreen Ali is a volunteer with Greenpeace India.